As schools open their doors for the 2017-2018 school year, it is a good time to discuss students, schools, and mental health. Recently, we learned that suicides have spiked in middle school. Young people are still bullied, often online.
Sadly, national and world events can be far more alarming to children than adults might realize.
Schools should be on the front line, working with parents and helping students to adjust to the difficulties they face.
According to the CDC, every year, approximately 2 million U.S. adolescents attempt suicide. Even very young children can struggle with emotional difficulties. Our public schools should be doing more to address mental illness in both children and teens.
Unfortunately, the corporate takeover of public schools and the attempts to convert schools into simplistic, one-size-fits-all factory learning (preferably with every student online), leaves little room for the complexities children and teens bring to school when it comes to mental health.
We should not confuse social-emotional learning (SEL) that focuses on unnecessary data collection involving children, with helping children who have emotional difficulties. SEL is associated with online learning. Real mental health issues are about assisting students when they show up at school with difficulties, so they will feel better about themselves and others. Students with mental health difficulties are not able to learn well in school.
Until there is a school shooting, a suicide, a bullying incident, or a student is arrested for outlandish behavior, and these days that can include very young exasperated children in kindergarten, school officials do little to address the real mental health needs of children. When they do, it is usually in a punitive manner. The incarceration rate of youth is high and the draconian zero tolerance laws leave students with mental health issues lost in a world that cares little about them.
How do principals and teachers address the serious mental health needs of children, when the overall focus is to make good test scores and little else? Children also get lost in too much meaningless data collection.
Here is what public schools should not be doing:
1. Ignoring parents with concerns about their child’s behavior. Not reaching out to parents when the school recognizes that a student is acting differently and showing warning signs of mental illness.
2. Replacing teachers with computers. Machines do not provide students with the human connections they need to do well in life.
3. Ignoring cyberbullying. While schools cannot control what students do and say on the computer after school, they can address cyberbullying and be on the lookout for when it occurs.
4. Laying-off guidance counselors who provide services concerning mental health to children and their families, or who redirect families to those who can help their children. Or pushing high school guidance counselors into only the role of career counseling. They also should not be stripped of their counseling duties in order to focus solely on administrating high-stakes testing.
5. Eliminating special education teachers with special training in understanding emotional disturbances. These teachers should also not be replaced with substitutes like Teach for America who know little about teaching students with emotional and behavioral problems.
6. Putting all children including those with serious emotional disabilities, in oversized regular classes and then withdrawing support. Also, poor test scores of students with emotional-behavioral disabilities should not be used to shut-down their special ed. support programs! Students with mental difficulties should be given waivers on such tests.
7. Making class sizes so huge that teachers are unable to get to know their students and understand the personal problems they may face.
8. Dumping tons of meaningless paperwork on teachers to take them away from the kind of information about a student that really matters. Students are more important than huge amounts of data.
9. Not taking students and what they say seriously. Listen.
10. Never providing students an outlet to express themselves. Not including free journal (narrative) writing, or, rarely, permitting students to ask questions and state their opinions.
11. Removing the arts like drawing, painting, drama and music. These subjects are often therapeutic to students with mental health difficulties.
12. Refusing to provide alternative kinds of education programs within the public school district for students who need a different way of learning. Alternative schools can help keep students in school.
13. Punishing or pushing aside students with anger management difficulties, or never structuring their environment to assist them in a compassionate manner.
14. Not providing teachers with professional development to understand how to best identify students in crisis.
15. Ignoring gifted and talented programming for students with extraordinarily high intelligent quotients, who see the world differently and exhibit high sensitivities.
16. Acting like high-stakes testing is a true measure of a student’s worth.
17. Reducing or eliminating a student’s right and access to a legitimate break from school work.
18. Using corporal punishment or verbally abusing students when they are troubled.
19. Making fun or talking about students in a derogatory manner behind their backs or to their faces.
20. Eliminating school nursing positions. Without nursing services students might not have their medication administered correctly.
21. Not communicating with other staff members about a student’s mental health problems.
22. Refusing to set up meetings with teachers and parents concerning a student’s behavioral and emotional difficulties.
23. Paying more attention to academic and social data and not the student.
24. Never permitting young children recess breaks to regroup, or older students times to socialize. Denying children breaks from doing schoolwork to play is child abuse. How so many schools have gotten away with this over the years is atrocious.
25. Dismissing national and world events. Teachers and staff should be prepared and understand how to address the troubling events that unfold in the news. The way they approach these issues should depend on the age group and the sensitive nature of what has occurred.
26. Schools should not understaff mental health providers in schools such as School Social Workers and School Psychologists who can support students individually and foster social -emotional supports systemically. (Contributed by Karey Hansen)
If you can think of other examples of what public schools should not be doing when it comes to assisting students with mental health problems please let me know and I will add it to the list.
Public schools can go a long way towards assisting students who have serious mental health problems. They can lend support and guide students to the right place to get help. They can display sincere compassion and be a positive anchor in an otherwise rough sea.
We need to readdress what public schools should mean in our democratic, free society and how they can assist students in crisis.
*This was originally posted on August 12, 2014, and August 14, 2017, but was revised.